Revelry is what sticks to the minds of most when they hear “MassKara,” the name of Bacolod City’s famous festival that sprawls across the months of September and October.
There are crowded food and drinking stalls, the scent of inasal, and enough delicacies to sate an army of folks needing their sugar fix. And, of course, there are the masks of smiling faces, symbols of a collective defiance against hard knocks that represent the festival’s roots.
Bacolod is the center of Negros Occidental, known as Sugarlandia for producing more than half of the country’s sugar.
Artists helped conceptualize the first MassKara in 1980, a time when the province was entering the worst years of a sugar crisis that led to famine. It was also the year many Bacolod and Negros folk perished in the MV Don Juan tragedy in Tablas Strait off Mindoro.
Painter and cartoonist Ely Santiago, who penned the sarcastic “Coffee Cats” for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, coined the name MassKara (many faces) as a tribute to suffering Negrenses.
The first masks showed native Filipino motifs and used indigenous material. As commerce engulfed the festival, masks morphed into elaborate happy faces, with little reminder of the crises that birthed the festival.
In the first street MassKara since the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bacolod and Negrense artists are returning to their place of prominence.
Rappler highlights two exhibits showing the breadth and depth of the city’s cultural wealth, starting with Rosendo “Roy” Aguilar, a board member and official historian of the Art Association of Bacolod (AAB), and a painter and graphic illustrator who has made many of the MassKara posters through the decades.
Aguilar’s magnum opus, “Babaylan,” hangs in the Negros Musem and crops up in videos of the national anthem and academic books that discuss pre-colonial women, religion, and social hierarchies.
In an online interview with Rappler, Aguilar and his daughter, media and arts lecturer Mel Aguilar-Maestro, discussed the need to curate and archive local artists’ works as part of remembering history.
Aside from his retrospective exhibit, Vista Negrense Retrospect + After Image, which opened on Sunday, October 16, father and daughter launched on October 17 an interactive platform at the Negros Museum where young artists from Negros and Metro Manila can start dialogues on becoming “stewards of their local history” through curation and professional archiving.
Aguilar’s immersion with the community is a hallmark of Negrense artists tempered in the fires of “the social volcano.”
The first meeting where MassKara was planned was in Roli’s Restaurant near the city’s seawall, where Santiago, Budot Lizares, and then-mayor Digoy Montalvo huddled with a gaggle of other artists.
Aguilar also recalled another meeting in Tita’s Restaurant, adjacent to Roli’s, where Santiago introduced the first painted masks made of papier maché.
Aguilar and AAB colleagues Maowi Palacios, Lor Sumagaysay, Orville Visitacion, George Macainan, Marcial Buelba, Rodney Martinez, Rafael Paderna, Jecky Alano, Fred Juson, Belding Familiaran, Fred Escaran, Joemar Sanchez, and Alvarado went to the barangays to teach mask-making to local folk, who competed (and still compete) for prize money and churned out more for tourists.
The former editorial cartoonist of the Visayan Daily Star (1982-2018), the city’s venerable local daily, was the youngest AAB member when he held his first solo exhibit in 1983.
Nunelucio Alvarado, the activist painter who was also part of the early AAB, helped print Aguilar’s poster as he was busy with ingress duties at the AAB’s first gallery in front of the public plaza.
Aguilar sold out Vista Negrense’s 50 watercolor paintings, featuring emblematic scenes of churches and heritage houses, and the sakada (sugar field workers) and their humble homes.
The artist continued to paint through the years and remained an integral part of MassKara. But duties at the newspaper and teaching for 34 years at La Consolacion College’s Fine Arts and Architecture Department made it difficult to mount solo exhibits.
In 1990, he designed the poster of Memorias De Negros for the launching of the University of St. La Salle’s museum.
The AAB waned through the years but got a new boost when local businessman Bong Lopue dedicated a sprawling space in the northern barangay of Mandalagan for an Art District, where the organization’s gallery is now located.
After struggling through two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bacolod’s artists have re-emerged with a riot of creativity.
Aguilar, now 70, marked this year’s “Balik Yuhum” MassKara with a retrospective celebrating the personal and the sociological.
There are acrylic, watercolor, and charcoal with linseed oil works of rustic scenes of greater Bacolod, of ruins and old homes of the rich and poor, but also of the people who give the province life.
His new 2022 works, “Bacolod Charter History Timeline” and the series “Negrense, Haligi Sang Negros Series,” pay homage to the works of National Artist for Sculpture Guillermo Tolentino at the Negros Occidental Provincial Capitol.
“The four statues fronting the lagoon are often unnoticed due to its subdued placement on the majestic structure of the capitol building,” his daughter, Mel, pointed out.
In all the grandeur, “ang mga mamumugon” (the sakada, the fisherfolk, the laborers, and the peasants) are the true pillars of Negros as a society, the artist stressed.
Aguilar’s celebration of the working class stems from a hard-scrabble youth.
At 14 years old, he was forced to leave his hometown in La Castellana to study high school and work in Sampaloc, Manila.
In the bustling national capital, he roamed Ermita’s small galleries and printing houses and earned food and school money by selling hand-drawn greeting cards and his first small commissions from classmates and teachers.
Those years of exile and hard life came to life in 2011, with a rare charcoal work, “Relocation,” of the days the teenager spent homeless, seeking shelter from house to house in the slums of Manila.
“And I was not alone,” said Aguilar.
Now retired from work, Aguilar still looks forward to other great works.
Freed from professional duties, he will split his time caring for grandchildren and preparing for what could become new landmarks of Negros art.
“I want to paint the historic battles of Negros,” Aguilar told Rappler.
He mentioned Cinco De Noviembre, the 1898 surrender of the Spanish colonizers in Silay City, then the island’s center; and the World War II battles against Japanese invaders in Patag, Talisay City and in the far southern areas of the province.
But his biggest dream is to memorialize Papa Isio, the babaylan nationalist often depicted as a “bandit” by American colonizers. Dionisio Magbuelas, who also called for land to be given to the natives, was captured by the Americans in 1907, five years after General Miguel Malvar’s surrender.
“This won’t be for aesthetics, not for people to hang in their homes,” stressed Aguilar. “I desire to tell the untold stories and narratives of the people and liberation of Negros in history, to educate the younger generations and instill socio-cultural sensitivity for them to uphold their role as bearers of truth, social justice.” – Rappler.com